The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Life comes before duty. It follows from this axiom that the refusal of Air India pilots to fly to the Far East, areas affected by the deadly virus causing severe acute respiratory syndrome, is not entirely illogical. The pilots have insisted that those members of the crew who have come in from SARS-infected destinations should be made to undergo a medical test and cleared. The pilots have refused to fly unless this condition is met. As a result, Air India is currently operating only 75 per cent of its flights. Passengers travelling to the Gulf and to the southeast Asian airports have been the worst hit. It is not always possible to support the agitations and strikes that Air India pilots inflict on hapless passengers. The pilots are pampered a lot in terms of salaries and perquisites, yet they are not above a spot of blackmail to further their sectoral demands. However much their actions have been deplored in the past, their current protest is well grounded and deserving of some sympathy.

The sympathy grows out of the special circumstances in which the protest is located. SARS has acquired the dimensions of an epidemic. It may not be comparable to the Black Death, the scourge of medieval Europe, but the panic it has created is by no means unjustified. Even though India is not one of the principal centres of the dreaded disease, the panic created here is related to an ominous aspect of Indian social life. Public health and awareness of public health are virtually non-existent in India. The handling of patients suspected of carrying the SARS virus amply demonstrates this point. This creates the danger that the SARS virus, if it is allowed to spread in India, will become a major killer. Thus, in a sense, the Air India pilots are rendering a public service. It would have been better, of course, if the pilots had been able to do this without hampering their work. They have taken the extreme step first. The government also has been somewhat lackadaisical in its response to the looming crisis. It could have stopped all flights to China and southeast Asia. In the absence of a proper governmental response, the pilots have been forced to act. But this should not be taken as general justification of their proneness to protest.

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